LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron touches down in Washington on Tuesday for the start of a two-day diplomatic love fest meant to put to rest any suggestion that the relationship between Britain and the United States remains anything other than “special.”
President Obama, who is often portrayed in the British media as deeply uninterested in the U.S.-British “special relationship,” will move to dispel that notion by granting Cameron the privilege of being the first foreign leader to travel with him aboard Air Force One. Obama will whisk the prime minister away to Dayton, Ohio — leaving wives Michelle and Samantha in Washington — for a boys night out of college basketball in a key election swing state.
For his part, Cameron is presenting Obama, an avowed fan of the television show “Homeland,” with a golden opportunity: the chance to meet the show’s British star, Damian Lewis, at a White House state banquet Wednesday night.
Obama and Cameron also will hold talks on how — or whether — to take further steps in strife-torn Syria, on how to address fears of an Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities, and on joint planning for the withdrawal of U.S. and British troops from Afghanistan.
But Cameron’s visit — which marks his fashionable wife’s first major overseas trip — nevertheless appears designed mostly to send one clear signal: Despite shifting diplomatic priorities on both sides of the Atlantic, American presidents have no worthier friends than British prime ministers — and vice versa.
Speaking about Obama over a beer with journalists at No. 10 Downing Street on Monday, Cameron said, “I find him extremely good to deal with. Extremely straightforward, very thoughtful, very reasonable and absolutely a man of his word. And someone who I feel I have a strong relationship with.”
Their meeting, he said, “comes at an important time because there are so many important policy decisions to discuss.” Cameron noted, however, “I’ve not yet been to a basketball match. . . . I’m doing a bit of research, but don’t test me because I haven’t got that far yet.”
For Britain — and particularly its media outlets — prime ministerial visits to the White House amount to a fascinating exercise in Anglo-American ties. They put on display Britain’s almost-obsessive insecurity about its unique strategic relationship with the United States, a nation that many Britons otherwise largely view with a semi-playful sense of cultural superiority.
That mother-country-knows-best attitude can transform into outright fawning when British leaders cross the Atlantic. Case in point: An article bannering Cameron’s Washington trip in London’s Sunday Times this weekend savored the prime minister’s rare invitation to travel with Obama aboard “the coolest plane in the world” to the Ohio basketball game. This after Obama, the paper went on, had offered French President Nicolas Sarkozy nothing more than “a $4.20 hotdog” at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The social-call aspect of the visit will be evident also in the joint agenda of Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron, who will attend an anti-obesity event with the U.S. first lady and use the trip to herald the Olympic and Paralympics Games opening this summer in London. A group of British schoolchildren Michelle Obama met on a state visit to Britain last year also has been invited to Washington for follow-up chats at the White House.
After events Tuesday and Wednesday in Ohio and Washington, Cameron and his wife will head to the New York area to visit Ground Zero and meet with Newark Mayor Cory Booker to discuss urban renewal before leaving for London.
Although the visit sets up a summit between two decidedly different world leaders — Cameron hails from Britain’s Conservative Party and has made cutting the deficit his No. 1 priority — few are expecting major disagreements.
Cameron has purposely sought to avoid the kind of cozying that led to Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, being dubbed President George W. Bush’s “poodle.” For instance, Cameron pushed ahead, along with France, in a military effort in Libya in which the United States largely watched from the sidelines. He may also press Obama over recent events in Afghanistan, where a mass shooting allegedly carried out by an American soldier has raised fears of more anti-foreign sentiments. Yet speaking of the incident, Cameron said Monday, “Terrible though it is, we need to stick to the plan that we have.”
Indeed Cameron has stuck with a message that few ties are more important to Britain than its strategic relationship with Washington, and he has sought to reinforce that in policy decisions.
Under Cameron, Britain has moved to impose strict sanctions on Iran. At the same time, London has listened nervously to Israeli drumbeats of a possible airstrike on Iran. Cameron is expected to urge Obama to continue calling on the Israelis to show restraint, giving time for tough sanctions to work and force Tehran into a deal with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
One possible source of friction could be deep cuts being made by London in defense spending, which has made the Americans nervous about the long-term prospects of future joint missions such as the one in Afghanistan, where the number of troops from Britain is second only to those from the United States.
Cameron is also poised to seek a sympathetic U.S. ear over renewed diplomatic tensions with Argentina centered on the disputed Falkland Islands, a thorny issue that the White House is unlikely to eagerly wade into.
In the short term, though, both leaders appear roughly in sync on a timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
“The mood music between Obama and Cameron is going to be good,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.